Thankfully no Farnham schools have been closed (at time of writing!) because of the RAAC ‘crumbly concrete’ scandal, but there can be few issues that more clearly demonstrate this government’s incompetence.
Readers may remember that one of Michael Gove’s first acts as education secretary was to cancel Labour’s effective Building Schools for the Future initiative, which promised investment into our even then creaking education infrastructure.
Under the £55 billion scheme, every secondary school in England was to be either rebuilt or refurbished.
More than 700 schools’ building projects were cancelled when the scheme was scrapped by Gove in July 2010. And in spite of a desperate rearguard action in the courts, in which the judge said Gove’s decision was “so unfair that it amounted to an abuse of power”, the schools and local authorities were ultimately unable to prevent a collapse in investment.
The final death knell, as top civil servant and former Permanent Secretary in the Education Department, Jonathan Slater, reminded us all on Radio 4’s Today programme, was administered by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak who reduced the already emaciated schools capital programme by 50 per cent. It set the course for the disaster that many children, parents and teachers are now all paying for.
Locally, only Cranbourne College in Basingstoke is known to be affected, but we can’t be certain. As I write, the government refuses to publish the list of 104 affected schools and thousands of schools still have to be surveyed. Furthermore, it seems schools are just the tip of the iceberg as this form of aerated concrete was used widely in public building projects including Hospitals, Universities and Law Courts.
This deliberate withholding of information which is clearly in the public interest is characteristic of this government, of course, and it masks the Tory party’s ideological antipathy to public services generally.
Our crumbling schools are just the latest example of this country’s decaying public infrastructure. Our privatised utilities, particularly the water companies, continue to pay huge dividends to shareholders even while their Victorian sewers spew ever increasing amounts of raw sewage onto our rivers.
Our rickety public transport systems are starved of investment even as the revenue they generate flows overseas.
And, in spite of the best efforts of underpaid and over-worked doctors, nurses and other staff, our crisis wracked health services are still too often being delivered in 19th century conditions.
I sincerely hope that this government’s mishandling of capital budgets does not damage our children’s education. The government must not only pledge immediate practical help to the affected schools and colleges but also put aside its antipathy to public investment, in the short and long-term.
Though, as the saying goes, past performance is no guide to future performance, I fear that the last 13 years of ideologically-driven Tory austerity means that the chance of this are slim and the threat to our children’s attainment is real. It’s time for change.